As soon as it was announced, the new Group B class went under scrutiny from Porsche since it promoted faster and cheaper technical innovations. Peter Schutz, Porsche’s CEO, started the “Gruppe B studie” to reevaluate the company’s motorsport future under the new regulations since Ernst Fuhrmann (Schutz’s predecesor) strongly believed that this future was with the 928 model (and had stopped further development of the 911). The first Group B concept to come out of this study is believed to have been based on the 928, which would have sported aerodynamic improvements, a twin turbo V8 engine, and most importantly four wheel drive. However, Schutz strongly believed that most people identified the image of the marque with the classic 911. As such, the 928 idea was scrapped in favor of a new concept based on the 911.
One of the biggest challenges of thew new Group B regulations was the minimum homologation requirement of 200 road cars to be built within in 12 months. It was clear to Porsche’s engineers that only a true race car could be competitive. However, there was no way that Porsche could find that many customers for such a specialized car so the project was put on hold to see if Group B circuit racing would ever take off (“silhouette” racing had stopped after the absorption of Group 5 into Group B thus ending the 935 glory days).
Meanwhile, the focus was put on the 956 Group C racer and developing a quicker solution for Group B rallying in the form of the twenty 911 SC/RS “evolution” cars. However, Group B rallying proved to skyrocket the popularity of the sport in a very short amount of time with the likes of Audi and Lancia campaigning cars that were packed with their latest technology. As such, a Porsche “Gruppe B” car was considered once again early in 1983. Porsche’s competition department came to find that the technology required for a rally car also applied to circuit racing and could later be used on future production cars. The “Gruppe B” project was approved and the engineers immediately went to the drawing boards.
Design on the 959 started in the spring of 1983 and actual production was planned to start early in 1985. While the initial concept of the car was meant purely for creating the best race car, it soon shifted to being for the best road-legal car that can excel in both departments. Due to its very high technology showcase conception, the designers soon estimated that the 959 would be the most expensive Porsche ever built to date. However, by using the basic 911 chassis, the Porsche engineers had a quick starting point to begin developing a physical prototype.
Much of the early work focused on the four wheel drive system, which the Porsche engineers had very limited experience with. Various systems were tested in combination with different suspension types. The hardware of the Porsche four wheel drive system was fairly straightforward but the real leap came in with use of electronic controls. The system was equipped with a computer that controlled the amount of drive to the front wheels, through a ‘PSK’ clutch fitted between the gearbox and the front differential. It compensated, for example, for the weight shift during acceleration. The driver would also be given four settings to manually control the power sent to the front wheels in extreme conditions like ice or snow.
The engineers also found that the four wheel drive system worked best with double wishbone front suspension instead of the McPherson struts normally found on a 911. To ensure that the front wheels had traction at all times, each side was fitted with twin coil spring over damper units. The rear suspension also consisted of double wishbones but with just one coil/damper combination and an additional damper on each side. With its potential rally career in mind, the 959 chassis was equipped with four different mounting points for each wishbone to adjust the ride height. The pressure in the dampers could be adjusted from the cockpit. Other advanced technologies were being developed for the road version such as anti lock brakes (ABS) and tire pressure monitoring.
Porsche was eager to show a preview of the company’s new Group B contender at the upcoming Frankfurt (IAA) auto show in September of 1983. From the first observations, apart from the shell, very little from the 911 body was seemingly carried over. The prototype 959s can be easily differentiated from the latter production version by its use of “turbo” (vented disc) type wheels:
For its circuit racing ambitions, light weight and low drag were top priorities for the designers and to complicate things further, the Porsche 911 overall shape had to be retained for obvious commercial reasons. Key features of the original 911 launched exactly 20 years earlier were implemented into a much wider and smoother body. The designers had hoped to get away with a wingless design but wind tunnel tests showed that the rear end could not do without. To suit the smooth design of the car, the engineers went for an elegant yet functional integrated rear wing. Thanks to a fully closed undercarriage the drag figure was kept down to a very aerodynamic 0.32 Cd.
Needless to say that so much technological advancements needed an equally special engine. Obviously it had to be an air-cooled flat-6 but was distinctly different from any engine ever fitted in a 911 road car. In fact, it shared many components with the unit of the very successful 956 race car. The main departure from the 911 design were the cylinders that now featured twin overhead camshafts and four valves per cylinder. The addition of two sequential turbos boosted the power to 450 bhp. Final displacement was chosen at 2849 cc to efficiently maximize the particular Group B engine class (3989 cc with the forced induction 1.4 multiplication factor). However, there was a flaw in the initial design of the engine: vibrations from the camshafts had a negative effect on the chains driving them. The solution was a twin-chain setup but that meant that several parts now had to be recast. The engine problems had caused the introduction date of the production car to be delayed several times.
To ensure that the 959 met all the quality standards expected from the Porsche name, 21 pre-production “vorserie” prototypes were built and subjected to extensive testing. They can be easily differentiated from the other 959s by their rally style auxiliary lamps added to the front of the car:
The 1985 International Automobil-Ausstellung (auto show) in Frankfurt was set as the new launch date of the 959 road car with deliveries expected to start in the fall of the next year. The final specification included a fully appointed interior with luxurious leather seats, electric windows and air-conditioning. That was quite unlike the other Group B homologation specials and clearly showed where Porsche’s priorities were. The price had almost tripled from the initial estimate. Nevertheless, Porsche received as many as 1,600 customer inquiries at the auto show. Eventually, 250 orders were accepted after the clients placed a substantial down payment. Due to the time delays and high cost of the project, Porsche refused to waste additional resources to adapt the car to the very strict emission and safety standards upheld in the United States.
Although the car had created a lot of initial excitement, some people felt like the 959 should still prove itself in racing. After all, it was why the project had originally started. The car wasn’t ready enough to be pitted against the WRC competition so Jackie Ickx, a former factory Porsche driver, convinced Porsche management that “Rally/Grand Raid” type evens like the Paris-Dakar rally would be an excellent event to demonstrate the 959’s rallying capabilities instead. Thus, Porsche ran the 1984 events with three 911s modified to 959 specifications, albeit with a largely detuned 232 bhp engine, and with a simplified version of the four wheel drive system, but came home victorious nonetheless.
Encouraged by the results in 1984, three “real” 959s made their first appearance in the Sahara desert in 1985, now fully equipped with Porsche’s high technology arsenal. However, it was a year to forget; two 959s were involved in accidents, while the third suffered from a broken oil pipe. Despite the lack of success, Porsche decided to return for the 1986 event with enhanced preparations. They fielded three 959s again, but the boost was lowered to cope with Africa’s low octane fuel, which saw the power decrease to 390 bhp. It was to be Porsche’s year as the three cars finished first, second, and sixth.
Porsche was satisfied and decided to continue developing a second racing derivative of the 959. Officially known as the 961, it was directly aimed at circuit racing while sharing a close visual and technical resemblance to the 959. The 961 was a widebody circuit racer and destined to compete in Porsche’s home away from home; Le Mans. The engine was tweaked to produce a hefty 640 bhp and was the first 4WD car to race at Le Mans. The 961 scored what can be considered as the first circuit “Group B win” for its class when it finished a credible 7th overall. Later entered in the IMSA GTX class for experimental cars, Porsche hoped to sell copies of the new racer to the United States, but due its relatively high price they failed to get a single order.
Porsche had proven the potential of the 959 for both racing and rallying. However, by then, news of the official cancellation of Group B was made public and would ultimately put a premature end to any more motorsport ambitions for the 959. While the car would subsequently be produced over the 200 required units for homologation, Porsche decided not to apply for the official documentation papers although the FISA was still accepting post-ban homologation requests. The reason probably being that, since the project had already cost too much money and the class was banned, Porsche saw no point in performing the tedious task of homologation. However, this decision can be criticized since the 959 was THE company’s flagship model synonymous with Group B from the very beginning.
After much production delays, the first 959 road cars were finally shipped out in 1987. However, some purists considered them far too smooth and comfortable to be considered a real road / race car hybrid. As such, a final version of the car was developed late in 1987: Dubbed the 959 “Sport” (or sometimes abbreviated 959S), it was an extensively lightened version of the “standard” or “Komfort” model. By stripping luxury items like electric windows, leather power seats, rear seats, air-conditioning, as well as removing the adjustable ride height control, a total of 100 kg was shaved off the weight of the original 959. There was also an optional 530 bhp upgrade offered with the “Sport” model. It can be visually differentiated from the “Komfort” model by its lack of a passenger side mirror:
In an ingenious attempt to make the 959 available for its American customers, Porsche developed a second version of the “Sport” model (also known as the “Sport II”); fitted with a roll cage and stripped of its adjustable dampers, it was marketed as a pure racing car. This meant that the strict US emission and safety standards would not apply. The American government saw through the ploy and they ultimately sent the first batch of seven cars back to Germany. Since then, several examples have been successfully imported to United States under the ‘Show and Display’ law. Canepa Motorsports have more recently developed a package that both increases the performance and meets the strict EPA emission standards.
At the time of its launch, the 959 held the record as the fastest production car with a top speed of 197 mph / 317 kph until it was beaten shortly thereafter by its future arch rival: the Ferrari F40 (201 mph / 324 kph). The pair is credited with reviving the supercar game that continues to this day. While the F40 proved to be a financial success for Ferrari, Porsche actually lost money on the sales of the 959 due to its very high technology design, low production volume, and sheer design cost. However, although the 959 never actually competed in Group B as a fully fledged homologated car, it helped secure Porsche’s place in automotive history: the 959 is considered to be the first true high tech supercar and forerunner of all others to come. As such it is very coveted by collectors, with many examples that recently sold at auction for more than 1 million dollars.
ROAD CAR SPECIFICATIONS
|Class||Sports / Supercar||four wheel drive coupe|
|Production||1986~1988 (337 units)||Assembly: Germany|
|Type||Type 959/50 B6, H-6, DOHC 24v, gas||rear, longitudinal|
|Displacement||2849 cc||WRC (x1.4) = 3989 cc|
|Output Power – Torque||444 HP @ 6500 rpm||369 lb-ft @ 5500 rpm|
|Materials||block: aluminum||cylinder head: aluminum|
|Ignition||Bosch Motronic electronic|
|Cooling system||air cooled cylinders / water cooled heads|
|Type||“PSK” four wheel drive||6 speed manual gearbox|
|Differential ratios||N/A||electronic ratio control (default F40/R60 – up to F20/R80 or F50/R50)|
|Type||930 derived steel monocoque chassis, aluminum panels, fiberglass reinforced kevlar bonnets, polyurethane roof|
|Steering system||rack & pinion||N/A|
|length: 4260 mm (167.7 in)||width: 1839 mm (72.4 in)||height: 1280 mm (50.4 in)|
|wheelbase: 2273 mm (89.5 in)||front track: 1504 mm (59.2 in)||rear track: 1549 mm (61.0 in)|
|Rims – Tires||
Paris Dakar: 25 Ans d’Histoire (French)
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